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New York has given the country and the world many things in its 380-year history — the hot dog, the American musical, the martini, electric signs — but who knew it also gave us what the modern world thinks of as the traditional way to celebrate Christmas?
Christmas was originally a combination of the day of worship of the birth of Christ and the Roman winter solstice festival called the Saturnalia. The latter was a very raucous, townwide affair, and its raunchy and riotous ways persisted until nearly modern times.
Then the Puritans outlawed Christmas altogether. When it was revived in 1660, it was a calmer affair, and still celebrated on a community basis.
It was New York City that changed all that, pioneering the family — and very child-centered — holiday that has since spread around the world. This is not surprising, perhaps, seeing that Santa Claus is New York's patron saint.
No, really. The Dutch ship that brought the first settlers to Manhattan was named for St. Nicholas, the patron saint of old Amsterdam as well as children.
It was long a Dutch tradition for children to get presents on St. Nicholas Day, Dec. 6, often put in their shoes or stockings for them to find in the morning. The children of non-Dutch families, noticing how well the Dutch children were making out on Dec. 6, were soon successfully lobbying their parents to give them presents as well.
Often these presents came on Christmas instead of St. Nicholas Day.
Then, around the turn of the 19th century, New York's emerging literary establishment created much of the folklore of the modern Christmas. Washington Irving wrote about St. Nicholas ("Sinterklaes" in one Dutch form of the name, soon anglicized to "Santa Claus"). In Irving's "Diederich Knickerbocker's History of New York," Sinterklaes rode through the skies in a horse and wagon and went down chimneys to deliver presents to children.
In 1821, an American children's book called "The Children's Friend" changed Santa's horse and wagon to a reindeer and sleigh. Then in 1823, Clement Clarke Moore penned the most famous Christmas poem of them all, "A Visit from St. Nicholas." Moore was about as New York as it gets. His family's Manhattan estate had been named for the Chelsea Hospital in London — and that then gave its name to the Manhattan neighborhood, which Moore developed. It was Moore who made the number of Santa's reindeer eight and gave them their names.
New York merchants, knowing a good thing when they saw one, began to push the New York tradition of gift-giving, decorating their stores and filling their windows with merchandise designed to catch the eyes of kids. They figured, quite correctly, that the fastest way to a parent's wallet was through their children.
A.T. Stewart, the greatest New York merchant of the time — he more or less invented the department store — also was a major importer of dry goods and other merchandise from abroad, which he wholesaled to storekeepers in other cities around the country.
At first, there was no single, standard image of Santa Claus. But in the 1860s, the great American political cartoonist Thomas Nast contributed drawings (like the one pictured above) to Harper's Weekly — a New York publication, of course — that fixed to the present day the image of Santa Claus as a jolly, bearded, fat man in a fur-trimmed cap. Nast often depicted Santa visiting the troops fighting the Civil War.
By the 20th century, the New York-inspired American Christmas traditions were hallowed ones. But New Yorkers kept adding to them anyway. In 1940, Irving Berlin wrote what has become the most popular Christmas song of all time, "White Christmas." Nine years later, Robert May and his New Yorker brother-in-law, the composer Johnny Marks, added a ninth reindeer to Santa's sleigh, Rudolph.
It is, perhaps, a sign of New York City's incomparable multiethnic synergy, which reaches right back to the present-seeking children of Dutch days, that both Marks and Berlin were, of course, Jewish.
Gordon, who grew up in Manhattan, has written several books of history, including "Empire of Wealth: The Epic
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